Before talks with French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday, al-Azhar shaikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi said Muslims living in non-Muslim countries coerced into obeying the law could do so. 

"If a Muslim woman is in a non-Muslim country, like France, for example, and the officials there want to pass laws which are contrary (to Islam) on the question of the headscarf as it relates to the Muslim woman, then that is their right which I cannot interfere with as a Muslim," he said.

"In that case, if a Muslim woman observes the laws of a non-Muslim state, then from the point of view of Islamic law, she has the status of acting under coercion."

Secularism 

A committee of French experts has recommended banning "conspicuous" religious insignia - including the hijab, the Jewish kippa and large crucifixes - from state schools.

The committee has said religious insignia are incompatible with France's secular identity.

Muslim students hold a protest
to defend the right to wear hijab

But Islamic groups around the world have condemned the proposal, which was backed by French President Jacques Chirac.

They say it is an attack on freedom of religion, and will alienate France's five million Muslims rather than integrate them. 

Jafar Abd al-Salaam, a professor of International Law at al-Azhar, told Aljazeera that Tantawi's statement was a personal opinion that was not binding on other members of the institution.

He added that although the hijab was not one of the most crucial issues in Islamic law, no state had the right to interfere with religious freedom.   

Massoud Shadjareh from the Islamic Human Rights Commission was appalled at Tantawi's comments.

"The French hijab ban is a backdoor policy to encourage Islamaphobia in the country and to further alienate Muslims," he said. "The ban will effect millions of French citizens and goes against the basic principles of human rights, the right to practice your faith."

Influential leader

As head of al-Azhar, shaikh Tantawi is one of the world's most influential Islamic leaders.

However, he is also no stranger to controversy.

Appointed to his position by President Mubarak in 1996, many view him as a political stooge charged with rubber stamping the government's domestic and foreign policies.

In the past he has stoked controversy by condemning human bombings in Israel, which many Palestinians say is their most effective way of opposing Israeli occupation. 

He also criticised Saddam Hussein for not going into exile and sparing his country the trauma of invasion, and said the US-led war on Iraq was not a crusade against Islam.

On the other hand, the cleric gave his blessing to any volunteers who wanted to help Iraqis fight the invaders, even potential human bombers.